indexGerman has a word for someone who exhibits this sort of behavior: Arschloch.

Mea culpa, I plead guilty to the symptoms of this malaise more than once in my life, but the one instance that sticks out most in memory is in the spring of 1969 on a trip to Berlin.

As in East Germany. Yes, that East Germany: Checkpoint Charlie, spies in trench coats and fedoras, the Wall, building facades pockmarked with artillery damage a quarter century after the end of World War II. After the Abu Ghraib photos and the NSA disclosures, the Cold War seems an almost romantic place. Nothing romantic about it, however, if you were on ground zero at the time.

Berlin was ground zero for the Cold War.

It was not a smart time for me to display my Arschloch side.

It was actually quite a safe and cozy trip arranged for us students abroad in Vienna. A nice little bus trip from Vienna west toward Salzburg and then north into the Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany, and then finally into the belly of the beast, the German Democratic Republic, East Germany.

This was the year after Prague Spring; the Cold War was not always without shots fired.

So it was a serious trip, but it was also a lark. Blend the misguided sense of invincibility of youth with the equally benighted bulletproof feeling of the tourist, and you have a dangerous brew leading to rash actions.

The nudge of my inner asshole-ness came upon me as we were loading our bus in

The author as arschloch, third from left, back row; his victim, to his right

The author as arschloch, third from left, back row; his victim, to his right

Vienna. Good friend Jim had the seat just in front of me; he was bending over adjusting his luggage under the seat and I caught the glimpse of the green edge of his passport just peaking out the back pocket of his Levis. Was I playing Fagin’s Artful Dodger? Who knows. Tempted, I gave in without a second thought and snicked that passport out of his pocket as calmly as you please. He never felt a thing; no witnesses to my intended prank. I could just see him later on in the trip as we neared the border, his hand reaching back for the prized document and finding an empty pocket.

Or did I even think that far ahead? After all, who in their right mind is going to find such a stunt anything other than bloody minded?

I tucked the passport away with mine in the inner pocket of my cord jacket and thought nothing more of it, caught up in watching the view out the window or joining in a song fest as we jolted along the autobahn.

We stopped somewhere near Salzburg for a snack and bathroom break. It was a warm spring afternoon; I found a grassy slope near the rest stop and stretched out in the tall grass, watching a kestrel wheel in the sky high overhead.

It was about ten minutes later when I finally headed back to the bus and it was as if a bomb had exploded there. Luggage was strewn around the perimeter of the bus; a row of seats had been unbolted and moved outside; there was an urgency in the air with the other students that was clearly not right.

And then I remembered.

Jim was frantically going through his luggage for the third time.

Okay, at this point I still get the queasy feeling I had back then–enough to say I asked him if he was looking for his passport, tried to apologize, handed it back and skulked back to my seat like the moral leper I was.

We made it to Berlin later than evening, crossing the border without incident. We each had lodgings in guest houses around West Berlin. I roomed on my own. I climbed out of my clothes, threw them on the one easy chair in the little room, slipped into the narrow, lumpy bed, and fell asleep more quickly than I deserved to.

passportThe next morning we were scheduled for a bus tour into East Berlin. We would most definitely need our passports with. I checked my cord jacket to make sure it was in the inside pocket, and no passport. I went through my pockets, my overnight bag.

No passport.

You’ve got to be kidding, I thought. I mean, I guess I believe in karma, but instant karma?

I went through everything again.

No passport.

There was the hint of a smile of satisfaction on our group leader’s face when I told him my sorry tale. He had been put through the wringer with my prank yesterday, and now he was almost pleased to tell me I needed to get to the U.S. Mission–the embassy was in Bonn–and have a replacement issued. The U.S. State Department had a consular division in one wing of that mission.

Did I mention that we were in Berlin over a long weekend? This was Saturday; regular consular hours were Monday through Friday. Arriving at the U.S. Mission Berlin in the suburbs of Zehlendorf, I was feeling not only panicked but utterly confused about where to go. The Marine guard at the gate, who could not have been a whole lot older than me, listened to my Madam Butterfly tale, then pointed a bony finger in back of him and said in German with a Kentucky twang, “Geradeaus to the big building on the left.”

“Straight ahead,” he meant. Straight ahead to karma, I heard.

I finally found a sub-sub-consular who was doing penance on Saturday and he guided me through what became a full day process of issuing an emergency replacement passport to get me out of East Germany by the time my bus left on Sunday afternoon.

“Pretty bad place to lose a passport,” the sub-sub said with more than a touch of irony.

“Pretty bad,” I agreed.

The photo in the replacement passport shows a pretty harried looking young

US Mission Berlin

US Mission Berlin

man staring into a camera as if daring it to click.

It clicked. I got the passport as darkness fell over Berlin and made my way back to the center where I was staying. I was too exhausted even to bother with dinner. Another night on the lumpy bed, and I was up early to get packed and be sure to meet the bus on time.

I threw my crumpled pile of clothes into the bag, dimly aware of knocking something off the seat of the chair in the process. Looking down at the parquet floor I saw it lying there in all its olive green glory. My “lost” passport. I’d spent my whole time in Berlin humping about getting documents signed and testifying with a hand on the Bible, and all the time the passport was in my room, covered up by my mess of clothes, overlooked by someone with a bad conscious who was expecting karma anyway.

And now I had two passports and had to figure out what to do. Burn one? Where? And have the landlady come running? Tear it up and try to flush it down the toilet. Ever try to tear a passport?

I happily report that I did not for a moment think of trying to sell one of the passports, even though there was a very healthy market for such documents at the time. A modicum of maturity on my part.

In the end, I stuck the old passport down my pants until we were out of East Germany, and then tried to turn my tale of woe into an adventure for my fellow travelers.

They were more interested in singing “Kumbayah.”




I just learned that author Jim Thompson died in Finland on August 2. It’s a shocker and my thoughts go out to his wife. Jim was a long-time resident of Finland and penned four books in the popular Inspector Vaara series. The fifth, Helsinki Dead, was left unfinished at the time of his very untimely death at the age of 49. According to one Finnish source, James was apparently killed in an accident.

Born in Kentucky, Jim packed a lot into his all too short life. In addition to being a successful author, Jim had variously turned his hand to being a bartender, bouncer, construction worker, photographer, rare coin dealer, soldier and wrestling announcer. He earned a Master’s degree in English Philology from the University of Helsinki and spoke six languages.

I have run posts on Jim and his work a couple of times. As I recall, I was introduced to Jim and his work by Leighton Gage, another writer no longer with us. I find myself reverting to useless euphemisms at times like this; at times like this words don’t seem very useful. For a brief obit/bio, see this piece in the Helsinki Times.

We never met in person, but Jim was just one of those special people it was an honor to have known. He cared so very much about his craft and was savvy about the book business, kind to friends, and not one to suffer fools gladly.

I’ll miss him–I am sure there are a lot of you out there who will too.

img_0005Jason Goodwin is a British historian and author of the popular historical mystery novels featuring the eunuch detective Yashim and set in Istanbul during the early nineteenth century. The world of the Ottoman Empire figures importantly in the series, and Cambridge-educated Goodwin brings that world vividly to life in his novels, having already dealt with it in has narrative history, Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. The Yashim series debut, The Janissary Tree, earned Goodwin an Edgar Award for the Best Novel in 2007.

Second in the series, The Snake Stone, won critical praise from many quarters. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio noted: “When you read a historical mystery by Jason Goodwin, you take a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth.” The Washington Post also commended that series addition, observing: “The real pleasure of The Snake Stone lies in its powerful evocation of the cultural melting pot that was nineteenth-century Istanbul. . . . Goodwin’s sharp eye combines with a poetic style to bring the city vividly to life.” Book three in the series, The Bellini Card, prompted laudatory words from Publishers Weekly: “Goodwin skillfully blends deduction, action sequences and period color.” The fourth series installment, An Evil Eye,was published in the spring of 2011, and Publishers Weekly dubbed it “masterful.” Continue Reading »

BreedingThe U.S. release of A Matter of Breeding, the fifth book in my Viennese Mysteries series, is now available. To celebrate its publication, the San Francisco Book Review features me in an extensive interview on the series and on writing historical fiction, as does the Big Thrill.

The novel also continues to garner strong reviews.

Publishers Weekly felt that this “solid fifth whodunit featuring lawyer Karl Werthen and real-life criminologist pioneer Hanns Gross … is one of the series’ best at combining plot and historical background.”

Kirkus Reviews also had praise for the novel, noting: “Turn-of-the-century Austria has its own homegrown Jack the Ripper, a killer with a cruelly creative streak and a disturbingly playful nature…. Jones adds a delicious historic perspective…, all presented with precision and panache.”

Here’s a brief summary of the book:

The fifth installment of the acclaimed Viennese Mystery series, A Matter of Breeding, finds lawyer and private inquiries agent Karl Werthen and his colleague, the criminologist Dr. Hanns Gross, investigating a series of grizzly murder/mutilations of young women in the Austrian province of Styria. The newspapers are touting Jewish blood ritual murders and vampirism, and Werthen and Gross–assisted by the Irish writer Bram Stoker who is in Austria to give a speech–battle against time to discover the real motive for such brutal and seemingly random killings. Meanwhile, Werthen’s wife, Berthe, has her own case to deal with. Commissioned by Archduke Franz Ferdinand, she is investigating a potential breeding scandal at the famous Lipizzaner stud. If the stud line has indeed been corrupted, this can prove to be more than a mere embarrassment for the Habsburgs, for the Lipizzaner blood line has been introduced to most of the royal stables of Europe. As these dual investigations proceed, it eventually becomes apparent that there is a connection between the two. In the end, it all comes down to a matter of breeding.

You can actually buy it now at Amazon or  at your favorite bookshop.

DeniseMinaTHUMBThey call it Tartan Noir, the Scots form of noir crime writing. And Glasgow crime writer Denise Mina is one of its major practitioners. Mina is the author of a number of critically acclaimed novels: the three installments of the “Garnethill” trilogy featuring Maureen O’Donnell as an unwilling sleuth; three novels featuring Paddy Meehan, a journalist in 1980s and 1990s Glasgow; the stand-alone crime novel, Sanctum; the 2010 graphic novel, A Sickness in the Family; and contributions to the John Constantine, Hellblazer series.

Increasingly, however, Mina has become identified with her series of novels featuring Glasgow DI Alex Morrow: Still Midnight, The End of the Wasp Season, Gods and Beasts, and The Red Road. Writing in the New York Times Book Review of the last-named novel, released in the U.S. in 2014, Marilyn Stasio noted: “If anyone can make you root for the murderer, it’s Denise Mina, whose defiantly unsentimental novels are less concerned with personal guilt than with the social evils that create criminals and the predators who nurture them. . . [The Red Road is] as fierce a story as any Mina has written.” Publishers Weekly also had high praise for this installment, calling it “perhaps her finest yet, a brilliantly crafted tale of corruption, ruined lives, and the far-reaching ripple effects of crime.” n413367

Mina hit the ground running, winning the John Creasy Dagger for Best First Crime Novel in 1998 for Garnethill, the first of a trilogy of the same name. She was dubbed the “Crown Princess of Crime” by author Val McDermid, who went on to note, “”If you don’t love Denise Mina, you don’t love crime fiction.”  Mina has also earned praise from fellow Scots writer Ian Rankin, who called her “one of the most exciting writers to have emerged in Britain for years.” She has since been a finalist for the Edgar and the recipient of the 2012 Theakstons Old Peculier crime novel of the year award (for The End of the Wasp Season), beating out such formidable competition as John Connolly. Continue Reading »

a matter 3A Matter of Breeding, book five in the Viennese Mysteries, has just been published in England (due out in the U.S. in July) and has already been earning critical praise. British bookseller and blogger Jo Graham commented: “This is a rich and luscious historical read, within a well crafted plot, there are plenty of historical facts and famous faces to be found, fans of Conan Doyle will love this.” U.S. critic David Marshall, writing on the Thinking about Books Web site, remarked: “Altogether, A Matter of Breeding is a thoughtful … entertaining mystery.”

Read this fellow to get the real feel for the book and the series.

A quick précis :

1901. Karl Werthen and his colleague, renowned criminologist Dr Hanns Gross, are investigating a bizarre series of murders in the small Austrian town of Graz, aided, or impeded, by Irish author Bram Stoker, who as Marshall noted, is “some author fellow who’s visiting to promote his books. It seems vampires are at large and an expert’s help is called for. ” Meanwhile, back in Vienna, Karl’s wife Berthe is looking into what seems to be a fraudulent breeding scheme involving the prized Lipizzaner horses. Could the two investigations be connected?

GaryCorby[1]Australian novelist Gary Corby is the author of the Athenian Mystery series, which stars, as Corby explains on his home page, “Nicolaos, his girlfriend Diotima, and his irritating twelve year old brother Socrates.” The most recent series installment, The Marathon Conspiracy, is out this coming May. Publishers Weekly has this to say about the series: “Corby displays a real gift for pacing and plotting.” Similarly, Library Journal commented: “Mix one part ancient history, one part clever and contemporary banter, and one part action, and you have a top-notch crime caper.”

Gary, it is a real pleasure to welcome you Up Over (sorry about that) to Scene of the Crime. Can we start things off with the obvious? What made you choose ancient Greece for murder mysteries? Continue Reading »


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